Page 22 of Night Chills

electric tone oscillator deactivated the bell on the phone being called—and simultaneously opened that receiver’s microphone. The people at the other end of the line heard no ringing and were not aware that they were being monitored. These four servants were able, therefore, to hear anything said in the room where the distant telephone was placed.


Salsbury went around the desk, leaned down and listened at each earpiece.


“. . . nightmare. So vivid. I can’t remember what it was, but it scared the hell out of me. Look how I’m shaking.”


so cold. You too? V/hat the devil?” “...feel like I’m going to throw up.”


“... all right? Maybe we should call Doc Troutman.”


And around again:


“...something we ate?”


“...flu. But at this time of year?”


“...first thing in the morning. God, if I don’t stop shaking, I’ll rattle myself to pieces!”


“...running with sweat but cold.”


Dawson tapped Salsbury on the shoulder. “Are you going to stay here and watch over them?”


“I might as well.”


“Then I’ll go to the chapel for a while.”


He was wearing pajamas, a dark blue silk robe, and soft leather slippers. At this hour, with rain falling outside, it didn’t seem likely that even a religious fanatic of Dawson’s bent would get dressed and go out to church.


Salsbury said, “You’ve got a chapel in the house?”


“I have a chapel in each of my residences,” Dawson said proudly. “I wouldn’t build a house without one. It’s a way of thanking Him for all that He’s done for me. After all, it’s be cause of Him that I have the houses in the first place.” Dawson Went to the door, paused, looked back, and said, “I’ll thank Him for Our success and pray for more of the same.”


“Say one for me,” Salsbury said with sarcasm he knew would escape the man.


Frowning, Dawson said, “I don’t believe in that.”


“In what?”


“I can’t pray for your soul. And I can only pray for your success so far as it supports my own. I don’t believe one man should pray for another. The salvation of your soul is your own concern—and the most vital of your life. The notion that you can buy indulgences or have someone else—a priest, anyone else


—pray for you - . . Well, that strikes me as Roman Catholic. I’m not Roman Catholic.”


Salsbury said, “Neither am I.”


“I’m glad to hear it,” Leonard said. He smiled warmly, one Pope-hater to another, and went out.


A maniac, Salsbury thought. What am I doing in partnership with that maniac?


Disturbed by his own question, he went around the desk again, listening to the voices of the people in Black River. Gradually he forgot about Dawson and regained his confidence. It was going to work out as planned. He knew it. He was sure of it. What could possibly go wrong?


11


Friday, August 26, 1977


RYA FLUNG THE CAGE KEY high into the air and a few feet ahead of her. She ran forward as if she were playing center field, and she caught the golden “ball.” Then she flipped it up and ran after it again.


At the corner of Main Street and Union Road, she tossed the key once more—and missed. She heard the metal edge ring as it struck the sidewalk behind her, but when she turned she couldn’t see the trinket anywhere.


Emma Thorp bent over and braced her arms on the kitchen table. She accidentally knocked aside an empty coffee cup. It fell off the table and shattered on the tile floor.


Kicking the fragments out of his way, Salsbury stepped in behind her and with both hands stroked the graceful curve of her back.


Bob watched, smiling primly.


Jeremy watched, amazed.


Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat: the power, Miriam, his mother, the whores, Dawson, Klinger, women, vengeance - . . Ricocheting thoughts.


She looked over her shoulder at him.


“I’ve always wanted one of you like this.” He giggled. He could not suppress it. He felt good. “Scared of me. Of me!”


Her face was pale and streaked with tears. Her eyes were wide.


Lovely,” he said.


“I don’t want you touching me.”


“Miriam used to say that. But with Miriam it was an order. She never begged.” He touched her.


She was covered with gooseflesh.


“Don’t stop crying,” he said. “I like you crying.”


She wept, not quietly but uncontrollably and unashamedly, as if she were a child—or as if she were in agony.


As he prepared to enter her, he heard someone shout just beyond the window. Startled, he said, “Who—”


The kitchen door crashed open. A boy, no older than Jeremy Thorp, came inside, shouting at the top of his voice and wind-milling his thin arms.


At the edge of the Thorp property, Rya tossed the key and missed it again.


Two errors out of forty catches isn’t so bad, she thought. In fact that’s major league talent. Rya Annendale of the Boston Red Sox! Didn’t sound bad. Not bad at all. Rya Annendale of the Pittsburgh Pirates! That was even better.


This time she saw where the key fell in the grass. She went straight to it and picked it up.


When the door flew open and the boy charged in like a dangerous animal breaking free of its cage, Salsbury stepped away from the woman and pulled up his trousers.


“You let go of her!”


The boy collided with him.


“Get out of here! Now! Out!”


Under attack, Salsbury staggered backwards. He was strong enough to handle the boy, but he was suffering from surprise and confusion; and he had lost his balance. When he backed into the refrigerator, still trying to button the waistband of his slacks, the boy pummeling him, he realized that it was ridiculous for him, of all people, to retreat. “I am the key.”


The boy hit him. Called him names.


Desperate, Salsbury fought back, seized him by the wrists and struggled with him. “I am the key!”


“Mr. Thorp! Jeremy! Help me!”


“Stay right where you are,” Salsbury told them.


They didn’t move.


He swung the boy around, reversing their positions, and slammed him against the refrigerator. Bottles and cans and jars rattled loudly on the shelves.


Very young children would not have been affected by the subliminal program that had been played for Black River. Below the age of eight, children were not sufficiently aware of death and sex to respond to the motivational equations that the subceptive films established in older individuals. Furthermore, although the vocabulary had been made as simple as possible since the Hoibrook-Rossner-Picard indoctrination, a child had to have at least a third-grade reading ability to be properly impressed by the block-letter messages that established the key-lock code phrases. But this boy was older than eight, and he should respond.


Through clenched teeth Salsbury said, “I’m the key, damn you”


Halfway across the lawn, atop the grape arbor, a robin bounced along the interlocking vines, stopped after every second or third hop, cocked its head, and peered between the leaves. Rya paused to watch him for a moment.


Panic.


He had to guard against panic.


But he had made a fatal mistake, and he might have the power taken away from him.


- No. It was a serious mistake. Granted. Very serious. But not fatal. He must not panic. Keep cool.


“Who are you?” he asked.


The boy squirmed, tried to free himself.


“Where are you from?” Salsbury demanded, gripping him so tightly that he gasped.


The boy kicked him in the shin. Hard.


For an instant Salsbury’s whole world was reduced to a bright


bolt of pain that shot from his ankle to his thigh, coruscated in his bones. Howling, wincing, he almost fell.


‘Wrenching loose, the boy ran toward the sink, away from the table, intent on getting around Salsbury.


Salsbury stumbled after him, cursing. He grabbed at the boy’s shirt, hooked it with his fingers, lost hold of it in the same second, tripped and fell.


If the little bastard gets away.


“Bob!” Panic. “Stop him.” Hysteria. “Kill him. For God’s sake, kill him!”


The canary cage was on the lawn by the kitchen window.


Rya heard Buster chattering—and then she heard someone shouting in the house.


Tat-tat-tat-tat...


Salsbury got up.


Sick. Scared.


The na*ed woman wept.


Crazily, he thought of the refrain from the rhyme that went with a child’s game that he had once played: all fall down.. all fall down. . . all fall down...


Thorp blocked the door.


The boy tried to dodge him.


“Kill him”


Thorp caught the intruder and drove him backwards, knocked him against the electric range with devastating force, clutched him by the throat, and pounded his head into the stainless steel brightwork that ringed the four burners. A frying pan fell to the floor with a clang! As if he were a machine, an automaton, Thorp hammered the boy’s head against the metal edge until he felt the skull give way. When blood sprayed across the wall behind the range and streamed from the boy’s nostrils, the big man let go, stepped back as the body crumpled at his feet.


Jeremy was crying.


“Stop that,” Salsbury said sharply.


The boy stopped, reluctantly.


On his way to the bloodied child, Salsbury saw a girl in the open door. She was staring at the blood, and she seemed mesmerized by the sight. He started toward her.


She looked up, dazed.


“I am the key.”


She turned and fled.


Salsbury ran to the door—but when he got there, she was already gone around the corner of the house, out of sight.


PART TWO:


Terror


1


Friday, August 26, 1977


9:45 A.M.


RYA SAT IN THE FRONT SEAT of the station wagon between Paul and Jenny, silent and unmoving, gripped by what appeared to be fear and by anger as well. Her hands were curled into solid little fists in her lap. Beneath her summer tan she was ashen. Fine beads of perspiration were strung along her hairline. She pressed her lips together like, the halves of a vise, partly to keep them from trembling, partly as a sign of her extreme anger, frustration, and determination to prove herself right.


Although she had never lied to him about anything serious, Paul couldn’t believe the story she had told them minutes ago. She had seen something odd at the Thorp house. He was fairly certain of that. However, she had surely misinterpreted what she had seen. When she burst in upon Sam, Jenny, and him at the store, her tears and horror had been genuine; of that there was absolutely no doubt. But Mark dead? Unthinkable. Beaten to death by Bob Thorp, the chief of police? Ridiculous. If she wasn’t lying—well, then she was at least terribly confused.


“It‘s t-t-true, Daddy. It’s true! I swear to Cod it’s true. They they k-k-killed him. They did. Mr. Thorp did. The other man t-told Mr. Thorp to k-kill, and he did. He kept b-b-banging Mark’s head. . . his head.. . banging it against the stove. It was awful. B-banging it . . . over and over again . . . and all the blood. . . Oh, God, Daddy, it’s crazy but it’s true!”


It was crazy.


And it couldn’t be true.


Yet when she first came into the store—breathing hard, half-choking and half-crying, babbling as if she were in a fever, so unlike herself—he felt an icy hand on the back of his neck. As she told her improbable story, the glacial fingers lingered. And they were still there.


He turned the corner onto Union Road. The police chief’s house was a quarter of a mile away, the last on the street, near the river. The garage, large enough for two cars and topped by a workman’s loft, lay fifty yards beyond the house. He pulled into the driveway and parked the station wagon in front of the garage.


“Where’s the canary cage?” he asked.


Rya said, “It was over there. Near the window. They’ve moved it.”


“Looks calm. Peaceful. Doesn’t seem like a murder took place half an hour ago.”


“Inside,” Rya said sharply. “They killed him inside.”


Jenny took hold of the girl’s hand and squeezed it. “Rya—”


“Inside.” Her face was set; she was resolute.


“Let’s have a look,” Paul said.


They got out of the car and crossed the freshly mown lawn to the back of the house.


Emma had evidently heard them drive up; for by the time they reached the kitchen stoop, she had the door open and was waiting for them. She wore a royal blue floor-length corduroy housecoat with a high neckline, round collar, and light blue corduroy belt at the waist. Her long hair was combed back and tucked behind her ears, held in place by a few bobby pins. She was smiling, pleased to see them.


“Hi,” Paul said awkwardly. He was suddenly at a loss for words. If even a tiny fraction of Rya’s tale were true, Emma would not be this serene. He began to feel foolish for having placed any faith whatsoever in such a bizarre story. He couldn’t imagine how he would ever tell Emma about it.


“Hi there,” she said cheerily. “Hello, Rya. Jenny, how is your father?”


“Fine, thanks,” Jenny said. She sounded quite as bewildered as Paul felt.


“Well,” Emma said, “I’m still in my robe. The breakfast dishes haven’t been washed. The kitchen’s a greasy mess. But if you don’t mind sitting down in a disaster zone, you’re welcome to visit.”


Paul hesitated. “Something wrong?” Emma asked. “Is Bob home?” “He’s at work.” “When did he leave?”


“Same as every day. A few minutes before nine.”


“He’s at the police station?”


“Or cruising around in the patrol car.” Emma no longer needed to ask if something was wrong; she knew. “Why?” Why indeed? Paul thought. Rather than explain, he said, “Is Mark here?”


“He was,” Emma said. “He and Jeremy went over to the basketball court behind the Union Theater.”


“When was that?”


“Half an hour ago.”


It seemed to him that she had to be telling the truth, for her statement could be verified or disproved so easily. If her husband had killed Mark, what could she hope to gain by such a flimsy lie? Besides, he didn’t think she was the sort of woman who could take part in the cover-up of a murder—certainly not with such apparent equanimity, not without showing a great deal of stress and guilt.


Paul looked down at Rya.


Her face was still a mask of stubbornness—and even more pale and drawn than it had been in the car. “What about Buster?” she asked Emma. Her voice was sharp and too loud. “Did they take Buster over to the court so he could play basket-ball with them?”

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